Ballot info request has $3,294 price tag

ESCANABA — Communities across Michigan — including Escanaba — are still grappling with how to proceed with a mysterious Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request sent earlier this month asking for thousands of pages of ballots and other documents related to the 2016 presidential election.

“Right now, at this point, we’re waiting for the down payment and if we don’t receive it by Friday (today), then we don’t have to do anything,” said Council Member Peggy Schumann of the request.

The request, which was simply signed “Emily,” was sent to city clerks across the state on Aug. 20. It was mailed from Chicago with instructions to ship the gathered materials to the New York P.O. box address for “United Impact Group, LLC.” The only phone number on the request had a Flint, Mich., area code, and the username of the email provided by the requester was simply “mifoia2018.”

In cases where cities requested down payments, The Associated Press has reported checks from “Emily” had the address of her organization blacked out.

However, the mystery was solved this week when the Priorities USA Foundation — a non-profit group affiliated with Priorities USA Action, the largest Democratic Super PAC — stepped forward to take responsibility for the request. In a statement, the group described the request as a “research effort.”

“In light of numerous threats to voting rights in recent years, the Priorities USA Foundation is committed to identifying and eliminating barriers to voting and ensuring the future elections are fair and accessible for every eligible voter,” the group said in the statement. “To this end, the Priorities USA Foundation recently began an in-depth research effort to determine whether any discrepancies exist in the ballot process across various states and precincts that might disproportionately affect certain communities, particularly communities of color and young people.”

The Associated Press has reported the group contracted with an outside company to make the FOIA request.

At a special meeting Tuesday, Escanaba city council members looked at the projected costs of fulfilling the request. Barring any changes to the time or materials needed for processing the request, the total bill will be just over $3,294. Of that cost, $150 is for postage to mail the estimated 90 pounds of documents to New York.

By law, the city can request up to 50 percent of the total cost as down payment and 100 percent of the total cost before the request is mailed. Today marks the deadline for the prepayment.

The request specifically asks for three types of ballots and related materials: election day ballots, absentee ballots, and provincial ballots. Any ballots that were cast but not counted must also be submitted along with the reason the ballots were not counted.

Making physical copies of the ballots themselves has created a headache for clerks across the state, due to the laws prohibiting anyone but election employees from handling cast ballots. This means that all photocopying and scanning must be done by city and township clerks and cannot be outsourced to companies with equipment designed for such large tasks. The matter is further complicated by the fact that ballots are frequently larger than the scanning bed of a standard copy machine. In Escanaba, ballots were 18 inches in 2016, but the city’s copier only has a 14-inch bed.

Another concern is the supporting documentation requested for absentee ballots. The request specifically asks for copies of all absentee ballot envelopes containing the voter’s signature, any and all records containing the names of absentee voters, and all data associated with each individual. The request goes on to specify it is seeking the names of anyone who requested an absentee ballot (including individuals on permanent absentee voter lists), anyone who was mailed an absentee ballot, anyone who returned an absentee ballot, anyone whose ballot was deemed ineligible for counting (and information stating why the ballot was disqualified), and notes on which ballots were for voters who were military or overseas.

A similar request was also included in the letter asking for the names and additional information for all individuals who cast provisional ballots. It also asked for the reason why the voter was not allowed to cast a regular ballot.

“Under current law we have to provide it. I mean, who would have ever through they would be requested,” said Schumann of the request for identifying information.

For those who voted at the polls on election day, there is no identifying information, as the ballot numbers that connect voters to their ballots are removed prior to the ballot being cast.